EUROPALIA ROMANIA | by Lieselotte Egtberts
Failproof Witch, Virginia Lupu, 2019, Belfort, Aalst, Belgium. Image Lieselotte Egtberts
Ghent and Aalst
Every two years, the art festival Europalia takes place in Belgium. Since its first edition in 1969, the festival focuses on international collaboration in the artistic and cultural field. With exhibitions, concerts, performances and talks, every edition concentrates on one particular country. This year, it is Romania’s turn to be represented in EUROPALIA ROMANIA. I decided to visit two exhibitions to get a glimpse of Romania’s contemporary art scene.
Communism never happened
First, I visited S.M.A.K., the contemporary art museum in Ghent, to see the solo exhibition by Ciprian Mureşan (1977). Previously, S.M.A.K. presented the ambitious De Collectie (I): Highlights for a Future. This exhibition critically questioned the meaning of a collection for a museum that isn’t able to show it, and became consequently a thinking exercise on the role of the museum as an institute. Following up on this critical analysis of the institute, the work of Ciprian Mureşan fits perfectly.
Already when you enter Mureşan’s exhibition, the first thing that greets you is a large scale model of S.M.A.K.’s building (All Images from the Complete Collection Catalogue of S.M.A.K., 2019). Here, the architectural space of the institute is reproduced within that exact same space. As you look inside the maquette from above, you see the walls filled with layered pencil drawings. For these so-called ‘palimpsest drawings’, Mureşan used the photographic reproductions from S.M.A.K.’s collection catalogue. The act of carefully copying them into layers of pencil drawings makes the individually registered art objects unrecognisable, and into one vague representation of the art institute.
In his other works, Cyprian Mureşan continues his method of using reproduction and appropriation to reflect on today’s ideological narratives used in politics, education and entertainment. In the video I’m Protesting Against Myself (2011), a hand puppet coming out of a garbage can sums up his reasons for his own discontent with himself, based on a text by Gianina Carbunariu. With a list of one-liners and a protest sign in his hand, the puppet protests his own seemingly powerless individual being. Next to it, a text on the wall reads Communism Never Happened (2016), a sentence that mirrors the powerful slogan-like one-liner. In contrast to the video, however, Communism Never Happened explicitly questions a community, referring to the denial of a country’s past.
Art of a post-utopian era
The reference to the relation between Romania’s past and present is a recurring theme in EUROPALIA ROMANIA. The violent end to the communist regime under Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989 and especially the accelerated ‘leap forward’ towards capitalism and neoliberalism afterwards, still lingers on in Romania’s memory. After three decennia, the sped-up assimilation to Western economic policies still has its shortcomings. This makes contemporary Romanian art feel like post-euphoric expressions and realisations, even now that the past has become increasingly distant.
Artist Virginia Lupu (1990) belongs to the generation that has no direct memory of this communist past, but is all too familiar with Romania’s struggles with corruption and mismanagement. Within the framework of both EUROPALIA ROMANIA and the city exhibition Alias, the work of Lupu is now on show in the Belfort of Aalst. For Failproof Witch (2019), Lupu followed various communities of Roma witches. Her research resulted in a series of highly-saturated photographs displayed in lightboxes, showing the witches casting spells and participating in rituals.
Faith and superstition
Banned during communism, the belief in witchcraft now takes an interesting position in Romania. Although Romania’s witches, mostly of Roma descent, live in the margins of society, common people and even politicians both fear them and rely on them. This year, the witches turned their attention to something bigger than love or money problems, namely, politics. With two publicly announced spells, the witches attempted to fight corruption in their country. The day after, politician Liviu Dragnea of the Partidul Social Democrat was put to jail for abuse of power and corruption.
With her focus on an underrepresented group that practices spirituality, Virginia Lupu is an example of today’s millennial who in order to reject neoliberalist beliefs, instead appreciates the occult. In an interview, she argues that being a witch is inherently feminist and anti-capitalist. For her, witchcraft is “a tool for survival – and survival is important for marginalized communities in capitalism”, words that illustrate the overall discontent with Romania’s social-economic situation. Or, in the apologetic words of former Prime Minister Petre Roman: “The reforms meant not a new prosperous life but sacrifice. (…) There is still a lot to do.”.
Failproof Witch by Virginia Lupo until 01.12.2019 i.c.w. Netwerk Aalst, at Belfort, Aalst, Belgium This exhibition is part of ALIAS with 10 international artists.
Cyprian Mureşan’s solo show until 19.01.2020 at S.M.A.K., Ghent.
For all other exhibitions and events, see the website of EUROPALIA ROMANIA.